'Gun Fight' Relives Va. Tech Shooting, Revives Debate

Correction April 11, 2011

In this interview, Barbara Kopple misidentified Richard Feldman as the previous national director of the National Rifle Association. Feldman was actually the regional political director for that group.

Four years ago this month, 33 people died in a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. This coming Wednesday, HBO will air Gun Fight, a documentary focusing on the heated debate over our nation's gun laws. Host Liane Hansen speaks with filmmaker Barbara Kopple.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Four years ago this month, on April 16, 2007, Americans were stunned by some horrific news.

(Soundbite of news clip)

Unidentified Newscaster: A terrible incident unfolding on the campus of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. That's a couple of hours south of Washington, D.C. At least 20 people have been killed.

HANSEN: When it was all over, 33 people were dead in the worst campus massacre in U.S. history.

The story of the Virginia Tech shooting is the starting point for an HBO documentary that debuts on Wednesday. "Gun Fight" explores the debate between activists for gun rights, and advocates for more gun control. Barbara Kopple, twice an Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, is the director of "Gun Fight." And she's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program, Barbara.

Ms. BARBARA KOPPLE (Director, "Gun Fight"): Thank you. It's a great pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: What was it that inspired you to get involved with this project in the first place?

Ms. KOPPLE: Well, it was a random phone call from one of our producers, Mark Weiss, who was just calling me to catch up. And suddenly, he dropped the bomb and he just said, oh, how would you like to do a film about guns in America? And I went, what? I mean, is that like, World War II or something? And he was very persuasive, and so I decided I was game. And that was four years ago -almost four years ago. We were at Virginia Tech four days after it happened.

HANSEN: Do you have a point of view about the issue at all?

Ms. KOPPLE: Well, I think that what we were really - how we were really trying to frame this is, we wanted many perspectives and many angles. I mean, we met with people from the Brady campaign; we attended NRA national convention; we filmed gun rights policy conferences; we went into the emergency rooms. There's people at gun policy conventions that get there and think that any time you mention the word gun control, you're trying to take away their Second Amendment rights; you're trying to take away their freedoms. So there's nothing easy about this gun debate.

HANSEN: Colin Goddard was shot four times at Virginia Tech, and he is a thread that runs through the entire documentary. Did he find you or did you find him?

Ms. KOPPLE: I guess we all found each other through the Brady organization. And for me, Colin Goddard is truly a hero. He's a survivor; he's a fighter; he's a believer. And he has taken his personal tragedy of being shot four times in French class, on a small college campus, and turned it into a driving force for change. I think that if all of us can do what Colin is doing, we would certainly have some changes in this country. He's been an inspiration.

He's traveled all over the country, talking to students. He's spoken before Congress. And he is trying to change the gun loophole, trying to make sure that people who shouldn't have guns don't have guns - with a very passionate, level head.

HANSEN: Is there an equivalent character for the other side of the debate, for gun rights?

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Barbara Kopple misidentified Richard Feldman as the former national director of the National Rifle Association. Feldman was actually the regional director and then later, chief lobbyist and spokesman for the group.]

Ms. KOPPLE: Well, there's a very, very interesting character named Richie Feldman. And Richie Feldman was the national director for the NRA. And he also wrote a book called "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist." But what Richie did is, he got together with President Clinton, and they put on safety latches on guns so that children wouldn't be able to use them. And that showed big disfavor for the NRA. So Richie's somewhere in the middle.

(Soundbite of film, "Gun Fight")

Mr. RICHIE FELDMAN (Former National Director, NRA): This was my first handgun I ever bought - at Snowsville General Store in Braintree, Vermont.

Ms. KOPPLE: He has an arsenal of guns in his home. He lives in New Hampshire. He says he never goes to the door without his best friend.

(Soundbite of film, "Gun Fight")

Mr. FELDMAN: I'm not walking out to the front door without the means to protect myself. So I bring my friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.

Ms. KOPPLE: Richie Feldman said something very interesting. He said, maybe it's the language that people use. Like gun violence to some, it means taking away your freedom, taking away your guns, hurting your Second Amendment rights. And maybe if we could figure out a different way to be able to find common ground together, it would work.

HANSEN: Were there surprising moments when you were working on the documentary? Just give us an example of something that surprised you.

Ms. KOPPLE: I don't think that you would call them surprising moments. There were terrifying moments - for instance, the house in Philly, and seeing how people live by their guns. They have a gun in every single room: the bathroom, the kitchen, under the couch.

(Soundbite of film, "Gun Fight")

Unidentified Man: I'm 20 years old, man. I feel as though like, I know I'm gonna age more or whatever, but if I ain't got these with me then I don't even think I'm gonna make it to 30.

HANSEN: There's no narrator in the film. The people are speaking for themselves - the ones that have been interviewed and of course, clips that you use. Why did you choose that approach?

Ms. KOPPLE: Usually, I never narrate films. I just feel that it really needs to come from the people. And it's such a huge issue and a huge debate, and passions run so high on both sides. We wanted something that would have diverse representation and to bring people out into America, where we can see firsthand what this debate is about.

HANSEN: Filmmaker Barbara Kopple. She directed the documentary "Gun Fight," which debuts on HBO this Wednesday. She joined us from New York. Thanks a lot, Barbara.

Ms. KOPPLE: Oh, thank you so much.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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